Ezra Pound, heralded as the ‘founding father of modern English literature’ yet denied honours during his life, was born in a frontier town in Idaho in 1885, the son of an assistant assayer and the grandson of a Congressman.
He enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1901 and in 1906 was awarded his MA degree. He had already started work on his magnum opus, The Cantos. An avid reader of Anglo-Saxon, classical and medieval literature, Pound continued post-graduate work on the Troubadour musician-poets of medieval Provence. In 1908 Pound travelled to Venice. There he paid $8.00 for the printing of the first volume of his poetry, A Lume Spento (With tapers quenched).
Pound then went to London to meet W B Yeats, and became a dominant figure in Yeats’s Monday evening circle, serving for a time as Yeats’s secretary. He quickly gained recognition in London, and came into contact with the English Review that was publishing the works of D. H. Lawrence and the author, painter and critic Wyndham Lewis. In 1911 Pound launched his campaign for innovative writing in The New Age edited by the monetary reformer A. R. Orage. For Pound the new poetry of the century would be “austere, direct, free from emotional slither.”
The following year Pound founded the Imagist movement in literature. He was by now already helping to launch the careers of William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot, Hemingway and James Joyce. He was now also the mentor of Yeats, Pound’s senior by 20 years and with world recognition. In 1914 Pound started the Vorticist movement. The impetus originally came from the avant garde sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeski. With Wyndham Lewis and others, they launched the magazine Blast. This was also the year of the world war, which took its toll of many Vorticists.
Vorticism was for Pound the first major experience in revolutionary propagandising and the first cause that placed him beyond the pale of orthodoxy. Pound describes Vorticism as setting “the arts in their rightful place as the acknowledged guide and lamp of civilisation”. In this way, the arts were welded in a mystic union with politics and society in the manner already envisaged by Yeats.
Pound regarded commercialism as the force preventing the realisation of his artistic-political ideal. Many others in his entourage and beyond, including Yeats and Lewis regarded the rise of materialism, democracy and the masses as demeaning the arts, as newspapers and dime novels replaced literature, and the mass market determined cultural expression. Hence, many were to seek a counter-revolution in the return of aristocratic societies or saw a modem alternative in Fascism.
Pound embraced the Social Credit economic theory of Major CH Douglas, being promoted by The English Review. By subordinating money to the interests of society rather than allowing the power of the bankers to run unfettered, money would become the servant of society and not the master. Money or more correctly credit would be the lubricant of commerce, a means of exchanging goods and services, rather than a profit making commodity in itself. Hence, the corrupting influence of the power of money on culture and work would be eliminated. During the 1930s and 40s Pound wrote a series of booklets on economics, succinctly and lucidly describing economic theory and history.
At the same time Pound continued to be inspired by the classical mystery religions and by the ‘love cult’ of the Troubadours, who had been suppressed. He was also impressed by the ideas of Confucius who taught a civic religion that assigned everyone a social duty, from emperor to peasant as, a means of achieving a balanced social order. He saw later, in fascist Italy, the attainment of such a State.
Pound considered in Fascism the fulfilment of Social Credit policy, in breaking the power of the bankers over politics and culture. He considered that artists formed a social elite “born to rule”, but not as part of a democratic mandate. “Artists are the antennae of the race, but the bullet-headed many will never learn to trust their great artists.”
Pound had written in 1914 that the artist “has had sense enough to know that humanity was unbearably stupid… But he has also tried to lead and persuade it, to save it from itself.”
In 1922 Pound wrote that the masses are malleable and that it is the arts that set the casts to mould them. For Pound and others such as Wyndham Lewis and Lawrence, behind mass-man and its doctrines of democracy and communism, stood the real tyranny of the bankers. Pound considered the bulk of humanity to be ‘rabble’, “the waste and their manure” from which grows “the tree of the arts.” He writes in The Cantos of the masses and their political leaders becoming a torrent of excrement, “democracies electing their sewage.”
If one considers that the very essence of being human, of that which differentiates man from all other organisms, is the attainment of culture, then those from the culture-bearing minority of any society are definers of the human type. The masses of people are herded around by a variety of forces, both malignant and benign. Many of the culture-bearing stratum, as we are considering them here, saw the rise of a new era that placed economics above culture. Both communism and democracy sold their economic doctrines under the slogan of the ‘happiness of the greatest number’, as being the ultimate purpose of a social order. The moneyed elite has replaced the cultural elite as the definers of the human type. The aristocracy of money has replaced the old aristocracy of blood.
Pound, Lewis and Yeats all viewed the rise of these fundamentally a-cultural doctrines with alarm. Some like Pound saw in fascism the means by which the economic could be subordinated to the cultural. Then the masses could be harnessed for a cultural purpose by an ‘artist-statesmen’ such as Mussolini. Others such as Yeats believed a return to an older order, based on aristocracy and its patronage of the arts was the way back to something better than crass materialism and what was then developing into the pop culture of our time. Pound hoped the natural rulers “born to the purple”, would wrest control from the plutocrats and Bolsheviks.
Writing in “The Egoist” in 1914 Pound stated: “The artist no longer has any belief or suspicion that the mass, the half-educated simpering general… can in any way share his delights… The aristocracy of the arts is ready again for its service. Modern civilisation has born a race with brains like those of rabbits, and we who are the heirs of the witch doctor and the voodoo, we artists who have been so long despised are about to take over control.”
For those who value things beyond the material, such a cast-mould is preferable to that which has dominated the past two centuries, that of the merchant and the banker. Pound saw Fascism as the culmination of an ancient tradition continued in the personalities of Mussolini, Hitler and the British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. He had studied the doctrines of the ethnologist Frobenius during the 1920s, which gave a mystical interpretation to race. Cultures were the product of races and each race had its own soul, or paideuma of which the artist was the guardian. In Mussolini, Pound saw not only a statesman who had overthrown the money power, but also someone who had returned culture to the centre of politics. He said:
“Mussolini has told his people that poetry is a necessity of state, and this displayed a higher state of civilisation than in London or Washington.”
Writing in his 1935 book Jefferson and/or Mussolini Pound explained:
“I don’t believe any estimate of Mussolini will be valid unless it starts from a passion for construction. Treat him as ARTIFEX and all the details fall into place.. The Fascist revolution was FOR the preservation of certain liberties and FOR the maintenance of a certain level of culture, certain standards of living…”
Pound and his wife Dorothy settled in Italy in 1924. He met Mussolini in 1933. He also became a regular contributor to the periodicals of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, meeting Mosley in 1936. They remained friends into the post war period.
Writing in Mosley’s BUF Quarterly, Pound stated that Roosevelt and his Jewish advisers had betrayed the American Revolution. The American Revolution of 1776 had been a revolt against the control by the Bank of England of the monetary system of the American colonies. Indeed, Benjamin Franklin had stated in his diary that the colonists would have gladly borne the tax on tea. They had issued their own colonial script reminiscent of the social credit policy that Pound was advocating, and which was being undertaken in Italy and Germany. This had resulted in prosperity with a credit supply independent of the private banking system. The Bank of England intervened to compel the colonies to withdraw the script at a rate of devaluation that caused depression and unemployment. The colonists rebelled. But people such as Alexander Hamilton ensured that an independent America was soon again subject to the orthodox financial system of private banking control. Lincoln attempted the same resistance to the bankers and issued his famous ‘Lincoln Greenbacks’.
Pound pointed out in that Mussolini had instituted banking reform in 1935, and deplored the lack of knowledge and understanding around the world on what Italy was achieving. The U.S. constitution provided for the same credit system, giving the government the prerogative to create and issue its own credit and currency. Pound saw parallels between Fascist Italy and the type of economic system sought by certain American statesmen such as Jefferson and Jackson.
Pound’s Canto XLV (With Usura) is a particularly lucid exposition of how the usury system infects social and cultural bodies. He provides a note at the end defining usury: as “a charge for the use of purchasing power, levied without regard to production: often even without regard to the possibilities of production”. That is to say, what we commonly know as interest rates charged on loans for credit which the banks create largely out of nothing, i.e. as a book-keeping entry, for which we all, individuals, businesses and governments must pay back in real money as a token of our work.
“With usura… no picture is made to endure nor to live with but it is made to sell and to sell quickly with usura, sin against nature, is thy bread ever more of stale rags is thy bread dry as paper .. And no man can find site for his dwelling. Stone cutter is kept from his stone Weaver is kept from his loom WITH USURA Wool comes not to market Sheep bring not gain with usura… Usura rusteth the chisel It rusteth the craft and the craftsman It gnaweth the thread in the loom… Usuru slayeth the child in the womb It stayeth the young man’s courting It hath brought palsey to bed. lyeth Between the young bride and her bridegroom CONTRA NATURAM They have brought whores to Eleusis Corpses are set to banquet At behest of usura.”
Elsewhere Pound describes usury as like sodomy, against the law of natural increase.
From the late 1930s Pound began to look with favour at the economic system created by Hitler’s regime, and regarded the Rome-Berlin Axis as “the first serious attack on usurocracy since the time of Lincoln.”
In 1940, after having returned to Italy from a tour of the USA during which he attempted to oppose the move to war against the Axis, Pound offered his services as a radio broadcaster. The broadcasts, called The American Hour, began in January 1941. Pound considered himself to be a patriotic American. He considered the real traitors to be Roosevelt and his mainly Jewish advisers. After the Roosevelt instigated Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour Pound attempted to return to the USA. However, the American Embassy prevented him. Pound was stranded in Italy. With no means of livelihood, Pound resumed his broadcasts, attacking the Roosevelt administration and usury with a mix of cultural criticism.
In 1943 Pound was indicted in for treason. Hemingway, concerned at the fate of his old mentor after the war, suggested the possibility of an ‘insanity’ plea and the idea caught on among some of his literary friends who had obtained good jobs in the US Government. Other interests were pressing for the death penalty for America’s most eminent man of letters.
Two days after Mussolini’s murder Pound was taken from his home by Italian partisans after he had unsuccessfully attempted to turn himself over to the American forces. Putting a book on Confucius into his pocket, he went with the partisans expecting to be murdered, as a bloodlust was now turned against all those who had been loyal to Mussolini. Instead, he ended up in an American camp at Pisa constructed for the most vicious military prisoners. Pound was confined in a bare, concrete floored, iron cage in the burning heat, lit continuously throughout the night. He had a physical breakdown and was transferred to a medical compound, where he began his Pisan Cantos. In November 1945, he was flown to Washington and jailed.
He, like Knut Hamsun in Norway, was an embarrassment due to his fame. A trial would bring prolonged publicity. He was therefore declared insane and sent to a ward for the criminally insane at St. Elizabeth’s mental institution. Here his literary output continued over the course of 13 years, and he translated 300 traditional Chinese poems that were published by Harvard in 1954.
Pound maintained his political beliefs and among his visitors was John Kasper, a fiery young intellectual admirer of Pound’s poetry, who became notorious as an agitator for racial segregation in the southern United States of America.
Pound had still not been formally diagnosed in 1953. Inquiries from the Justice Department solicited an admission that at most Pound had a ‘personality disorder’. By the mid-1950s, various influential figures and magazines were campaigning for his release, and the poet Robert Frost was particularly instrumental in gaining his release. After 13 years confinement Pound’s treason indictment was dismissed on the 18th April 1958.
On 30 June 1958, Pound set sail for Italy. When he reached Naples, he gave the fascist salute to journalists and declared “all America is an asylum.” He continued with The Cantos, and stayed in contact with political personalities such as Kasper and Oswald Mosley. He remained defiantly opposed to the American system when giving interviews, despite the protests to the Italian government by US diplomats. Because of his politics, Ezra Pound was refused the honours due to him until after his death on 1st November 1972.